Thinly Veiled

I could criticize Leigh Bardugo for her thinly veiled version of Tsarist Russia, but I must disclose that it was the very trait that drew my attention to this YA title. I was enthralled by Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless (Animal Husbandry), so I was ready to be transported once more to a far off – yet familiar – land of folklore and magic. Just as Deathless had been promoted with an excerpt on Tor.com, so was Shadow and Bone promoted with a stand alone story, “The Witch of Duva.” I enjoyed that story while waiting for the novel to wend its way through the hold list at the library. Once I received it I blew through it in a couple of days. Shadow and Bone is not as steeped as Deathless; it is a thinner cup of tea. Which is befitting of a young adult novel, and still offers some refreshment to someone accustomed to a more robust brew.

In Tsarist Russia there was a Pale of Settlement, a region designated for the habitation of the Jewish population. In Bardugo’s Ravka there is a Shadow Fold, an area rendered inhospitable by a looming darkness that cannot be dispelled. Only nightmarish creatures called volcra can abide within the shadows, preying upon any humans who venture into the dark. The Fold separates the capital city from its only port, and therefore must be breached for trade. This can only be done by incurring heavy losses, but such barriers have never restrained the Tsars; not when the country’s most abundant resource is its peasant population. From among that population emerges a Sun Summoner, an orphan with the magical ability to summon light. This ability could change the fortunes of all Ravka, but what will it mean for her future?

To her credit, Bardugo’s thinly veiled version of Russia does include class tensions within and racial tensions without, but it could have gone further. Xenophobia does not begin or end at an international border (or a Shadow Fold). There is a religious element in the book, but it doesn’t amount to anything more than a stereotype. These are flavorful ingredients that should be added to the samovar as Bardugo prepares the next two books in the Grisha Trilogy.

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